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British PM May faces mounting crisis as foreign, Brexit ministers quit

Prime Minister Theresa May's government imploded Monday as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed Brexit minister David Davis in resigning over her masterplan for Britain's future outside the EU.

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In this photo taken on November, 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May (right) sits with members of her Cabinet, including British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister) David Davis (left) and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
In this photo taken on November, 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May (right) sits with members of her Cabinet, including British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister) David Davis (left) and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Foto:AFP-PETER NICHOLLS

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British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a mounting crisis after the resignation of two influential, top-tier government ministers over Brexit negotiations whipped up a storm that threatens to topple the fragile minority Conservative government

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson dramatically quit with a resignation letter accusing May of flying "white flags" of surrender in negotiations with the European Union. He said "the Brexit dream is dying, suffocated by needless self doubt."

In a two-page letter to the PM, Johnson said that while he initially accepted the government's proposal, it now "sticks in the throat." 

"Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximise the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy," he wrote. "That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt."

He said Britain was heading for "a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system." 

He argued it was in the "ludicrous position" of offering to accept huge amounts of EU laws that for decades British governments have argued against, yet with no say in how they are made.

"In that respect we are truly headed for the status of colony – and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement," he said.

Johnson followed Brexit Secretary David Davis out the door as a hard-won government consensus on future trade ties with the bloc disintegrated less than three days after it was forged, and nine months before Britain is due to leave the EU.

Davis resigned late Sunday, followed hours later by his deputy, saying May's plan to maintain close trade and regulatory ties with the EU gave "too much away, too easily."

Foundations

If Davis's resignation rattled May, Johnson's will shake the foundations of her government. The tousle-headed blonde is one of Britain's best-known politicians, and one of the most prominent advocates for Brexit. Some eurosceptic lawmakers dream of replacing May with a staunch Brexiteer such as Johnson, a populist, polarising figure who has never made a secret of his ambition to be prime minister.

"This afternoon, the prime minister accepted the resignation of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary," her Downing Street office said in a three-sentence statement. "His replacement will be announced shortly. The prime minister thanks Boris for his work."

With Britain due to leave the currently 28-nation bloc on March 29, 2019, EU officials have warned Britain repeatedly that time is running out to seal a deal spelling out the terms of the divorce and a post-split relationship.

Minutes after Johnson quit, May defended her Brexit plan to lawmakers in the House of Commons, with Johnson absent from his usual place on the Conservative front bench.

She said she and the two departed ministers "do not agree about the best way of delivering our shared commitment to honouring the result of the referendum" in which UK voters opted to leave the EU.

May's plan seeks to keep the UK and the EU in a free-trade zone for goods, and commits Britain to maintaining the same rules as the bloc for goods and agricultural products.

May said the plan would deliver frictionless trade with Europe and was the "only way to avoid a hard border" between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. Britain and the EU agree there must be no tariffs and immigration checks along the currently invisible frontier, but working out how to achieve that has been a major stumbling block in negotiations.

Rebuffing claims that her proposals make too many concessions to the EU, May said her "smooth and orderly Brexit" would leave Britain free to make its own laws and trade deals.

'Soft' Brexit

The resignations came just days after May announced she had finally united her quarrelsome government behind a plan for a divorce deal with the EU, initially seen as a victory for the PM

Government unity began to fray within hours of Friday's announcement, however. Brexit-supporting lawmakers were angered by the proposals, saying they would keep Britain tethered to the bloc and unable to change its rules to strike new trade deals around the world. They also argued that the proposals breach several of the "red lines" the government had set out, including a commitment to leave the EU's tariff-free customs union.

In his resignation letter, Davis said the "'common rule book policy hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense."

Britain and the EU hope to reach broad agreement by October so the national parliaments of the remaining countries can ratify a deal before Britain leaves. The timetable increasingly looks overly optimistic, and EU frustration with British division and chaos is growing.

European Council President Donald Tusk said Monday that "the mess caused by Brexit is the biggest problem in the history of EU-UK relations and it is still very far from being resolved."

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the government was incapable of delivering Brexit.

"How can anyone have faith in the prime minister getting a good deal with 27 European Union governments when she can't even broker a deal within her own Cabinet?" he asked.

Corbyn has said he will follow through with Brexit, should he become the nation's leader.

More to follow?

May has hung on to power longer than many expected after she lost her majority in a June 2017 snap election that she had called in hopes of strengthening her hand in Brexit talks.

The fear among May's allies is that more resignations may follow. Steve Baker, a junior Brexit minister, resigned along with Davis, his superior. May appointed staunchly pro-Brexit lawmaker Dominic Raab as the country's new Brexit secretary. She did not immediately name a replacement for Johnson.

The loss of two senior ministers and the anger among Brexit-supporting backbench lawmakers makes May's position as leader increasingly tenuous.

Davis insisted he did not want his resignation to become a rallying cry for May's ouster.

"I like Theresa May, I think she's a good prime minister," Davis said.

But other pro-Brexit lawmakers were furious at what they saw as a sell-out of the clean Brexit they desire. Eurosceptic Conservative lawmaker Peter Bone said party activists felt "betrayed" by the government plan.

Under Conservative Party rules, a confidence vote in a leader can be triggered if 48 Conservative lawmakers write a letter requesting one.

May was asked by an opposition lawmaker Monday whether she would contest a vote of confidence rather than resign.

"Nice try," she said with a touch of bravado. "But I'm getting on with delivering what the British people want."

- TIMES/AFP/AP

 

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